NEWTON, Iowa - John Stilley made sure that he arrived early for Mike Huckabee's appearance here the other morning.

When the Republican presidential candidate started talking, the evangelical Christian hung on every word, wearing a small smile of satisfaction that never went away.

"I've been aware of Huckabee for months through a Christian magazine I get," he said later. "I knew he shared the same values I do. . . . But I kind of hung back from him, because you want a candidate who has a lot of support.

"I think I really wanted him all along. I think Christians are starting to wake up and realize that he's the one."

In Iowa, this is Mike Huckabee's moment. With four weeks left before its caucuses, the engaging former Arkansas governor and ordained Baptist minister has surged to the top of the polls here and is moving up elsewhere.

Huckabee, 52, says: "People want to elect a president who knows what he believes - and believes today what he believed before he started to run for president - because the convictions he holds are convictions of the heart."

To evangelical Christians, likely to account for about 40 percent of the participants in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses on Jan. 3, the appeal stems from both the message and the messenger.

On their issues, Huckabee is with them all the way. He favors two constitutional amendments, one to outlaw abortion, the other to define marriage as an institution involving one man and one woman.

In October, he told the Values Voters Summit in Washington: "I do not spell G-O-D G-O-P. Our party may be important, but our principles are even more important than anybody's political party." A leader, he says, should be a thermostat, not a thermometer, not someone who merely reflects the national temperature but tries to adjust it to where it ought to be.

He also opposes virtually every form of gun control, including waiting periods for gun purchases, saying that the Second Amendment is about letting Americans protect themselves against the potential of "a new tyranny from our government." He says he was the first governor to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

On economics, his big idea is the Fair Tax, a favorite of many conservatives. He would scrap the income tax and replace it with a national sales tax that might be as high as 23 percent. This, he says, would boost economic activity of all kinds and end the underground economy.

At a debate in May, he raised his hand when asked which of the candidates disbelieved the theory of evolution.

In other ways, though, he is not so easily categorized. His views on the role government were influenced by his hardscrabble upbringing - one generation removed from outdoor toilets and dirt floors on his mother's side, he says - and his 101/2 years at the helm of a heavily Democratic state between 1996 and 2006.

As governor, he supported higher taxes at times to pay for programs he considered necessary. While he cut some taxes, the overall burden in the state, according to a statistic that he quotes, rose during his tenure in Little Rock.

He signed legislation that provided health insurance to low-income children. He made new investments in education and infrastructure. He even favored making merit-based scholarships available to the children of illegal immigrants, saying that they should not be punished for their parents' actions.

For these policies, he has been attacked by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose long-held Iowa lead he is threatening; by former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who also wants to be the champion of social conservatives; and by the Club for Growth, a Washington-based group advocating lower taxes and less government.

"The best information is probably not going to be given by my opponents," he says when his critics' words are posed to him. "However, if I say something about them, it's true."

All kidding aside, he knows that his above-the-fray performances in debates have helped get him where he is today. But when asked about his campaign's modest resources, he can't resist taking a shot at Romney, saying Iowans won't support a candidate just because "he waves his checkbook at them."

The well-turned phrases don't disarm every listener, particularly when the subject is foreign policy.

"My problem with Mike is that he's the nicest guy in the race," said Dan Bunnell, 63, a retired Army colonel who came to see him in Newton. "The international arena is nasty. I want someone who's wise enough to know evil when he sees it and is strong enough to confront it."

News reports that Huckabee as governor favored the pardon of a convicted rapist who went on to rape and murder after being paroled won't help him on the toughness scale.

To those who say he's not electable, he replies that he is the only man in the race who has run against the Clinton machine (in Arkansas) and defeated it four times.

To those bothered by his television commercial, which identifies him as a "Christian leader," he says that's merely a reference to his career in the ministry, not a proclamation that he considers himself holier than others.

To religious conservatives worried that a vote for Huckabee - by damaging Romney's prospects - would help former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he says a vote for Huckabee is a vote for Huckabee. Should current polling trends continue, that concern will recede.

In analyzing his stunning progress over the last month, he is fond of paraphrasing a famous saying of Gandhi's in which the leader of the drive for Indian independence talked about the stages of a movement:

"First they ignore you, then they make fun of you, then they attack you, then they attend your swearing in."

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.